By Graham Readfearn, The Sydney Morning Herald
You wouldn’t have felt a thing, but at some point last week the world glided almost unnoticed into debt.
But this was not the kind of over-spend currently exercising the world’s finance ministers.
September 27 was declared Earth Overshoot Day – the point when, according to researchers, “humanity’s demand for ecological resources and services in a given year exceeds what the Earth can regenerate in that year”.
To work out the date, Global Footprint Network researchers look at what humans consume, the size of the world’s population and the capacity of the planet to deliver on our demands.
With each year since the beginning of this century, “overshoot day” has fallen three days earlier than it did the year before.
Charles Berger, director of strategic ideas at the Australian Conservation Foundation, said deforestation, increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, food shortages, traditional environmental pollution and loss of biodiversity were just some of the symptoms of a planet running on a deficit.
“In one way or another, activities such as mining, overuse of non-renewable resources, the clearing of land, emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollution and forms of waste can all be traced directly back to consumption by someone, somewhere,” he said.
But Mr Berger said a large part of the problem was that most impacts of human consumption were hidden within the products we buy and services we use.
Research from the ACF in 2007 showed the things households have a direct control over, such as the electricity, gas and petrol consumption, made up less than one third of our total carbon footprint and less than a quarter of our water use.
“Our patterns of consumption are fundamental and some appear very direct. We know for example that taking a long shower uses more water than a short shower,” Mr Berger said.
“But other forms of consumption are not so visible. How many of us know when we purchase an item in a shop how much pollution was generated or how much land was cleared to produce it? Those things aren’t evident on the surface.”
It’s the economy, stupid
But can Australians be expected to cut their consumption when so many economic indicators – such as gross domestic product (GDP), employment or ‘consumer confidence’ – seem to depend on the population doing the opposite?
University of Queensland environmental psychologist Kelly Fielding, from the Institute for Social Science Research, said the “dominant paradigm” was economic growth.
“And that’s predicated on the assumption that we will go out, shop and buy things,” she said.
“We are told that growth is good and that really underlines our capitalist consumer society – that’s the backdrop we live in.
“The ‘buy less stuff’ idea is tricky because it’s a lone message among some powerful messages that say we should be buying more. When the government gave us a stimulus during the GFC, they told us to go out and buy things.”
UQ economics professor John Quiggin said not all economic growth required people to “have more of everything”.
“Improving health services and education for example are a large part of our total output,” he said.
“In essence, if we were to achieve the goal of having every child finish high school, that wouldn’t have a necessarily detrimental impact on the environment.”
Professor Quiggin said economists should look beyond the measurement of GDP as a way to benchmark the nation’s prosperity.
“We need to get away from those numbers. Improvements in living standards are just as good a measure of how we are doing,” he said.
Mr Berger said when it came down to quality of living, consumption patterns could actually be having a corrosive effect on communities.
“There’s been a shift away from sharing and towards individualisation and consumption,” he said.
“There’s a shift towards buying the book instead of borrowing it from the library.
“That shift has a big ecological impact but it also impacts on our social life as we move away from shared recreational facilities – the library or the shared barbecue in the public space.
“Everyone has a lawn mower tucked in each garage on the street, when the street could manage with just one. Surely we can do better than that?”
So is resisting the urge to splurge the easy answer to reducing the environmental impact of our consumption?
“What we are after is smart consumption,” Mr Berger said.
“We do have to recognise that at the end of the day we are consumers – all of us – one way or another.”
Mr Berger said ACF research suggested choosing to buy renewable energy, eating less red meat and taking public transport were three important steps.
“But when we are engaged in buying things we have choices that are available to us and we should think about the impact of those things on the broader world,” he said.
Donnie Maclurcan, Co-Founder of the Sydney-based Post Growth Institute, said one effective response was the concept of “collaborative consumption”, an industry he said was worth $110 billion globally. Examples include car-pooling schemes, businesses that resell and rent goods and bike sharing.
“When stuff is consumed ‘collaboratively’ – such as when one borrows a tool from a neighbour – the detrimental effects of the items’ resource intensity are greatly reduced,” Mr Maclurcan said.
“These issues are extremely urgent. We in the developed world not only need to consume less, overall, but we need to consume differently and de-grow the size of our economies in order to thrive within planetary limits.”
Dr Fielding said turning our backs on the short-term highs of retail therapy would be a difficult step for many.
“Just buying less stuff sounds simple, but in a sense it runs counter to the prevailing cultural norms,” she said.
“It sounds simple, but it’s asking people to be different and that is not an easy thing for some people to do.”